Friday, January 13, 2012

Note to Jerry

It’s a couple of weeks late, but I have some suggestions for New Year’s resolutions for California Governor Jerry Brown:

Wake up.

Smell the Coffee.

And pick up a newspaper.

Just days into 2012, Brown was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying that during 2011 he “learned that the Republicans can’t vote for a tax”.  “That [position]”, Brown continued, “was not evident”. 

That is by any measure an extraordinary statement.  Has Brown not read a newspaper in 30 years?  Never heard of Grover Norquist?  Forgot 1978 Prop 13, passed thanks to his own lackadaisical brand of politics?  Unfamiliar with the Americans for Tax Reform pledges that virtually all of California’s Republican representatives have signed?  Did he crawl out of a hole on his inauguration day in January of last year?

Conventional wisdom holds that Californians elected Jerry Brown this time around because he knows state politics like the back of the battle-scarred hand he was supposedly going to use to smack less principled colleagues into shape.  Brown’s excuse for a spectacular level of ignorance is undoubtedly that he had been away from Sacramento for too long, and that the political culture was changing. 

But not only should his stint as California Attorney General have prepared him for what he would be facing from California’s reactionary Republican Party; the barest grasp of current events would have allowed him to anticipate the unwavering strength of Republican opposition and plan as far back as early 2010 when he announced this, his third bid to govern California.  Instead he made the gimmicky pledge to not raise taxes without voter approval (failing to realise that Republicans wouldn’t even let him do this), hamstringing the state’s ability to govern itself further, and exacerbating one of the most notable flaws in California’s political structure: the tendency of voters to intervene willy-nilly in the process and then trash legislators for being ineffective.  Even Whitman’s people, according to George Skelton, believe that Brown would have won handily without making such a silly promise. 

Year-end reviews of Brown were mixed.  Skelton, in his typical fence-straddling style, remarks that Brown’s greatest achievement was that “he didn’t screw things up worse.  In fact”, argued Skelton, warming to a theme that runs throughout the reviews of Brown, “[the Governor] started the state on a slow mend to fiscal recovery”. 

Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times was more blunt: “Jerry Brown and the Legislature dominated by his fellow Democrats end the year having struck out”.  Brown’s press secretary, Gil Duran, responded by arguing that just as people underestimated Brown’s low-key 2010 campaign, they are underestimating his governing strategy (if indeed any such strategy exists).  Duran noted that “the problem wasn’t created in a year and it isn’t going to be fixed in a year”. 

But in logical terms this response to criticism is pretty weak.  Brown’s campaign was designed to ensure electoral victory but was also bound to create governing difficulties because of its pandering to anti-tax radicals.  Moreover, his campaign and his term so far have been remarkable for their failure to address the structural problems which plague California’s politics.  Brown might agree with one of his favourite philosopher’s characters who declare that “A ‘New Constitution’ would help or hurt [California...] about as much as a new hat would alter a lunatic’s brain”*, but Josiah Royce didn’t have Prop 13 in mind when he penned his novel.

The “he’s made a good start” reviews also miss the point.  Sure, Brown has begun to close the state’s deficit, but at a serious cost to its schools, universities, social services and humanity.  His failure to address the ultimate cause of California’s problems (and the problems are many: a dispersed and broken political structure, a democratic deficit, unemployment, a stealthy privatisation of its public institutions, a lack of investment in its people) is setting the state up for another cycle of the same. 

As Joe Mathews and Mark Paul point out in California Crackup (yes, I’m a broken record; yes you should read it), California doesn’t function because it can’t be governed.  Brown hasn’t discussed a reform of Prop 13, hasn’t acknowledged the inadequacy of our voting system, and certainly hasn’t asked voters to step up and take some responsibility for their role in shipwrecking the state.

I don’t think that Brown is fundamentally dishonest, but I can’t believe that he was so blindsided by the Republican Party’s economic fundamentalism.  I do think that in spite of his protestations and his repeated assurances that he is focussed exclusively on our state’s difficulties, Brown can’t stop playing the political game.  At least one eye and much of his strategy seem to be concentrated on some future electoral victory, meaning that he is failing to fully focus on the factors which conspire to plague California, and that he is not working to develop a comprehensive agenda for overhauling the state.  His is a failure to realise that for most Californians, unemployment, broken government and a disinvestment in the institutions which promote social and economic equality are not a game.  This is serious stuff, and it’s long past time Brown started behaving accordingly.

*  Josiah Royce.  The Feud of Oakfield Creek: A Novel of California Life.  Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1887, 112.

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